“There is no other country in the world, besides my own, whose way of life I like so much. I love English traditions, English politeness, English architecture. I even love English cooking,” said Christian Dior, and it’s only fitting that the largest retrospective on the fabled couturier is now showing at the V&A in London. Reimagined after the Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, organised by the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, it is curated by Oriole Cullen. “A self-confessed anglophile, Dior came to the UK when he was 21 to perfect his English, and would always associate it with freedom,” shares Cullen.
Organised according to eleven different themes, the showcase reveals an intimate world of Christian Dior, tracing the high points of his life, from his childhood to the creation of his fashion house in 1946. This journey back in time also extends to the displays of icons such as the timeless 'Bar Suit' and other legendary looks designed by the visionary aesthete.
Born in northern France in 1905, Dior was always artistically inclined, setting up a small art gallery where he and a friend sold art including works of Pablo Picasso. However, it was in 1942, when he joined Lucien Lelong that he learnt how to design clothes. It was not until 1947 that Dior burst onto the Paris fashion scene with clothes that seemed extravagant in the face of wartime restrictions. His debut collection was christened 'New Look', for it showcased voluptuous silhouettes, with the average dress using about 20 yards of fabric. This was also why it faced immense criticism from various quarters because those were the times of fabric rationing; but that did not last long. Dior’s opulent silhouettes eventually brought joy back to the once capital of fashion.
The 'Bar Suit', one of the most popular models from Dior's first collection, is on display at the V&A. “It is important that this very strong look is one of the first things you see, and it is situated in front of the reproduction of the facade of the House of Dior,” says Cullen. “An original piece, it came to the V&A thanks to photographer, Cecil Beaton, when the V&A was building a dedicated fashion gallery,” she adds.
From iconic gowns, fragrances and lipsticks, the exhibition features over 500 pieces in what is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever staged in the UK on the House of Dior – the museum’s biggest fashion exhibition since Alexander McQueen's 'Savage Beauty', in 2015. The exhibition is spread across 11 rooms, each of them showcasing the inspirations that defined the fashion house’s aesthetics – from the daring designs of Yves Saint Laurent to the rational style of Marc Bohan, the flamboyance of Gianfranco Ferré, the exuberance of John Galliano, the minimalism of Raf Simons, and Maria Grazia Chiuri’s feminist vision of fashion.
Travelling through different eras of fashion, it flows seamlessly from the ‘Historicism’ to the ‘Atelier’, which is “…all white - it’s the moment of a new start, a moment that you dream of the final dress,” says Maria Grazia Chiuri, Creative Director of Christian Dior, of the pristine white room where one can view the toile versions of her designs from the Fall 2018 couture season. Along with rare haute couture garments, also on view are accessories, fashion photography, film, vintage perfume, original make-up, illustrations, magazines, and Christian Dior’s personal possessions.
The exhibition shows how each successive artistic director has stayed true to Dior’s vision of haute couture, while bringing their own creative sensibilities to the House. Taking centre stage at the exhibition is the ‘Dior in Britain’, where one can view the Dior dress worn by Princess Margaret for her 21st birthday celebrations, which is currently on loan from the Museum of London following conservation work. The exhibition also brings to life Dior’s spectacular fashion shows staged in the UK’s most luxurious stately homes, including Blenheim Palace in 1954, of which several ensembles are now in the V&A’s collection. At the end is the ‘Ballroom’ that celebrates the ‘fantasy of the Ball’, showcasing 70 years of stunning formal evening wear.
The exhibition is not just a dreamy throwback, it is a testament to the magical genius, Christian Dior. Like he once famously said, “I have designed flower women," this exhibition stands witness to what happens when an artistic vision blooms, unrestrained.